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Authors: Elizabeth Mansfield

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He looked down at her in surprise. “Of course,” he answered promptly. “I thought the ragout of veal was superb, didn't you?”

Nell frowned in impatience. “I'm not referring to
! I mean the rest of the evening.”

“I found it very pleasant,” Nigel pronounced firmly. “Are you suggesting that you did
find it so?”

what I'm suggesting. Truthfully, I found the entire evening unbearable.”

Nigel raised an aristocratic eyebrow and looked at her in disapproval. “I don't see why,” he said coldly. “Mother's little dinners are always said to be bang up to the mark. I can name dozens of people—undisputed leaders of the
—who vie with each other to receive her invitations.”

“To hear the music, no doubt,” Nell muttered drily, unable to stop herself.

“I beg your pardon,” Nigel responded quellingly, “but I think that remark would better have been left unsaid. If the musical entertainment this evening was somewhat … er … modest, it is because Mother would not have wanted to offend you by having anything but a quiet evening. You
still in mourning, after all.”

“I've told you repeatedly that I'm
in mourning. It's been more than five months since the Earl died. And although I was most sincerely attached to him and miss him most dreadfully, he expressly forbade us to go into deep mourning. Furthermore, as you know perfectly well,
was not directly related to him. Even Charles has taken off his black gloves, and
is the Earl's oldest living son. So I see no reason why your mother should worry about

“Well, Mama feels that the mourning period should last at least a year,” Nigel said in a repressive, rather critical tone.

“Does she indeed!” Nell snapped. “I'd like to point out, my dear, that I would not take it upon myself to tell your mother (or anyone else, for that matter) how to express
grief, and I'd be obliged if she would grant me the privilege of expressing
own way!” She concluded her outburst by favoring her intended husband with an I-dare-you-to-differ-with-me glare and turning her back on him.

Nigel was not in the least unsettled by her display of irritability. He felt no inclination to argue with her. Her words struck him as merely a typical exhibition of the odd humors of volatile females, and he had only to ride out the storm which he was sure would be of short duration and quickly forgotten. Lady Imogen Lewis, Nigel's mother, had warned him that Helen Belden was a wild, unpredictable, capricious girl, brought up since her parents' death (when she was barely ten) by her guardians, Lord Charles Thorne and Lady Sybil, who were themselves so disreputable as to be completely incapable of setting an impressionable girl a good example. Sir Nigel, however, did not share his mother's concern. He was perfectly capable of handling a girl like Nell. She would prove to be no more difficult than a skittish colt. Once he and Nell were buckled, he had no doubt that he could break her to the bridle.

He looked at her averted head with possessive satisfaction. A beautiful colt she was, to be sure. Her shiny chestnut hair curled in enticing little ringlets at the nape of her neck. Her shoulders and back, bare because of the rather-too-daring cut of her gown, gleamed whitely in the dim light of the carriage. His eyes traveled down to her tiny waist, now partially hidden by the shawl which had slipped from her shoulders, to the beautifully molded thigh whose outline he could discern through the thin silk of her dress, and finally to the shapely ankle peeping out from beneath the hem. To possess that loveliness would be well worth the trouble of taming her willfulness. He put his arm around her shoulders and made her face him. “I'm sure you can't blame Mama for feeling that your standards of behavior would benefit from a bit of guidance,” he said indulgently, “although I assure you that no one blames you for your indiscretions, since you're known to have lost your mother at so young an age. Nevertheless, being brought up by Lady Sybil, who everyone knows is a bit rackety herself, cannot have been good for you. You'll have to admit that your behavior has been, at times, quite scandalous.”

Nell drew back from him and raised her eyebrows haughtily. “Scandalous? In what way has my behavior been scandalous?”

“Come now, my dear, there's no need to set up your bristles. I
offer for you, knowing full well that you need a strong hand. Neither I nor my mother places any blame at your doorstep. It isn't your fault that you were orphaned, after all—”

“So I need a strong hand, do I?” Nell demanded, her eyes glinting dangerously. “You place no blame on me? How very kind! Pray be specific, sir. What have I done for which you and your Mama find it necessary to make these allowances?”

“Well, you must admit, if you are to be at all honest with yourself, that racing Tubby Reynolds through Hyde Park on that shocking blue phaeton of Lady Sybil's, or telling Lady Sheldrake to her face that her perpetual diet has done her no good at all, or wearing that shockingly revealing gown to Almack's, or jilting two perfectly respectable suitors in three months—not that I blame you for that, for neither one of those fellows would have suited you at all—are indisputable examples of scandalous behavior.”

“Are they indeed? Well, you are certainly at liberty to think so, but for one thing, my race with Tubby was held in the
, when Hyde Park is very thin of crowds. For another thing, Lady Sheldrake brought the incident on herself by asking everybody within earshot if she looked any thinner—we could all see that she was fatter than ever, poor thing, and no one could think of anything to say that wouldn't be an out-and-out lie. And as for my gown, which you say was so revealing, it was only your Mama who found fault with it. Lady Jersey herself told me that I was in very fine looks that evening. There is only one act for which I may be brought to task, and that is jilting Lord Keith. And poor Neddy Overton, too, I suppose. Perhaps I was hasty in crying off from those entanglements, for neither one of
ever told me I was scandalous!”

“They were both afraid of you. I am not,” Nigel said with a condescending smile.

Nell clenched her hands in her lap. “I think, Nigel,” she said, fighting to keep her temper in check, “that it is becoming quite clear that you and I don't suit.”

“Nonsense!” Nigel declared, unperturbed. “A mere difference of opinion about a family dinner—”

“It's much more than a small difference about dinner. I believe our differences to be fundamental. I've quite made up my mind. Our betrothal was a mistake, and I must ask you to release me.”

Nigel stared at her, his mouth gaping. “You can't be serious,” he managed at last.

“But I am.”

He shook his head in disbelief, but the firmness of her chin convinced him that she'd meant what she'd said. “I should have expected this,” he remarked bitterly. “You are well known to be volatile. Mama has remarked on it frequently. You cried off from your promise to Overton after only two weeks, did you not? And when you jilted Lord Keith so soon afterwards, all of London gossiped about you. But, as I told Mama when I determined to offer for you, I scarcely consider myself in the same class as Overton—or Lord Keith, for that matter. A girl might be excused for dismissing
. But now it becomes clear that Mama was right.”

Nell suppressed a smile. In Nigel's view, any girl who could give up a chance to marry
must be sadly shatterbrained. Any misgivings she might have felt at crying off were dispelled by his smug self-consequence. She supposed that there was some justification for
view that, in capturing Sir Nigel Lewis, she had made a brilliant coup, but she was both repelled and amused to learn that Nigel himself was in whole-hearted agreement with them.

Oh, well, she thought, she could not really blame him. She was an impoverished orphan with very little to recommend her on the Marriage Mart. Helen “Nell” Belden had lost both her parents by the time she was ten. She had been taken in by her godmother, Lady Sybil Thorne. Sybil's busband, Lord Charles, had become her guardian. But while the Thorne family moved in the very highest circles of London society, everyone knew that Charles Thorne was only a second son to the wealthy Earl of Thornbury and had long ago dissipated his portion. He'd lived most of his life on the largesse of his father and his now-deceased elder brother, Edgar. Any man who chose Helen Belden for his bride could expect nothing in the way of settlements from her guardian.

Fortunately for Nell, her lineage was impeccable, and she was endowed with considerable charm and attractiveness. Nell was not unaware that her laughing, green-flecked eyes, her chestnut curls, her impish face and the slender curves of her figure stood her in good stead. She had never lacked for suitors, even without a fortune to offer them. Of course, she knew that her behavior was not always proper. She had strong enthusiasms and was too often tempted to indulge them. Racing a phaeton was one of them, and the race with Tubby was not the only incident which had caused malicious gossip. Her taste in clothes, too (although she would not admit this to Nigel), tended to be somewhat impetuous. She enjoyed turning heads when she walked into a room and didn't hesitate even to damp her dresses if that trick would insure that her figure would be seen to advantage. Lady Sybil had taught her that a dress was to be despised if it went unnoticed, and she had followed Sybil's advice and chosen gowns that were remarkable either for their color, their flattering lines or their up-to-the-minute modishness.

Her two previous betrothals were also to be blamed on enthusiasm. Both Neddy and Keith had seemed quite adorable on early acquaintance, and each in his own way had made his offer so charmingly that Nell had accepted without much serious thought. It was only after deeper acquaintance that she'd realized that Neddy often behaved like a child, indulging in the most exhausting temper tantrums whenever he imagined that Nell had smiled at another man. And Keith, she soon learned, would never offer a wife half the affection he lavished on the dozens of dogs who shared his home.

Her betrothal to Nigel had been different. She had never felt any enthusiasm for him. It had been her guardians who had urged her to accept him. Perhaps she had been vain, but she had not dreamed that Nigel felt that he'd “condescended” when he'd offered for her. She suddenly realized that, even though she had hesitated for several days before accepting him, he had taken her eventual acceptance for granted. And now it was obvious that her rejection of his suit was completely incomprehensible to him.

She lifted her eyes to his face. He was looking down at her in cold vexation, but there was no pain in his eyes as there had been in Neddy's eyes when she had broken with him. “Don't be angry, Nigel,” she said placatingly. “You won't suffer for this. You'll be
in a day or two. Everyone will tell what a complete ninnyhammer I am for letting you slip through my fingers. You'll find a replacement for me in no time at all. And,” she added irrepressibly, “your mother will be overjoyed. I'm sure Lady Imogen will be delighted to help you choose someone more suitable than I. Why, just think of it—you might have Juliana Holcombe, or Gussie Glendenning or even Edwina Manning.”

Nigel turned away wordlessly. He didn't trust himself to speak. He was furious with her. He was well aware that she could be easily replaced—he didn't need her to tell him that! He drummed his fingers angrily on his knees and stared out the carriage window at the darkened streets. The girl was behaving foolishly and would no doubt regret this in the morning. The thought soothed him. She would be sure to reconsider after a good night's sleep. She couldn't persist in this idiotic obstinacy in the cold light of day. Besides, the Thornes would have something to say to her. They were not likely to let Nigel Lewis out of their clutches so easily. His lips twitched in a cold smile. He need not even bother to persuade her to change her mind—the Thornes would do it for him. And when they all came round to tell him she'd reconsidered, he'd not take her back so soon. He'd make them all stew for a while.

His smile broadened and he turned back to her. “I don't envy you the ordeal of telling your guardians what you've done tonight,” he said maliciously. “What do you think they're going to do when they learn that you've broken a betrothal for the third time?”

Nell had been basking in the blessed relief of being freed from the most oppressive entanglement of her life, but the feeling evaporated at his words. Nigel was right—it would not be easy to break the news. Charles and Sybil had been urgently persistent in their support of Nigel's suit. And now, with the late Earl's fortune all tangled up in legalities, their need for money was great. They had not spoken of this to her, but she knew that they had counted on her marriage to give them some measure of financial relief. How could she possibly break the news to them that, for the third time in less than a year, she'd whistled a fortune down the wind?

Chapter Two

voices raised in argument greeted Nell when she was admitted into Thorne House a few minutes later. Beckwith, the butler who admitted her, grinned widely and nodded toward the library door from which the noise emanated. “They're still at it,” he said with a disparaging cackle.

“Haven't they finished with Mr. Prickett?” Nell asked in surprise.

“Not yet they haven't,” the butler snorted. Beckwith did not have the dignity in manner and appearance which was usually required of the head of the domestic staff of an imposing household. He was short, stocky, cheerful and garrulous—characteristics which were considered by most of the gentry to be completely inappropriate for a man in his position. Lady Sybil found his presence a source of great embarrassment and irritation, but the old Earl had willed that Beckwith was to be kept on as butler as long as he should want the position. Beckwith seemed to take perverse delight in upsetting his mistress by making comments on her orders, speaking too freely to her guests, or appearing at times without the coat of his livery.

BOOK: The Phantom Lover
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